Casting a spell

Erin Kohlenberg/Flickr

Erin Kohlenberg/Flickr

If you see a shrubby tree in bloom before the month is out, chances are it's a witch hazel. Blooming in the off-season when it's the only thing stirring, its ribbon-like flowers and bracing fragrance are all the more welcome.

In the lexicon of trees and shrubs, witch hazel is associated with the casting of spells. That surely refers to the allure it has as a winter-blooming outlier since it was never put to nefarious use by witches and their kind (as far as we know).

The "witch" in witch hazel is actually a latter-day version of the Old English word "wych," meaning a pliant branch. Back in the day, you might have used a forked branch of witch hazel as a divining rod to go water witching and locate the right spot to dig your well.

Generically classified as Hamamelis, these plants also are known as winterbloom (for obvious reasons) and as snapping hazelnut, which refers to the loud, popping noise it makes when ejecting its shiny black seeds. That might spook you but it's harmless bit of plant business.

The common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, blooms in very late fall or early winter, often while its golden autumn leaves still are in place. Hamamelis vernalis and Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese forms, are among the first plants to flower in the new year — often weeks before spring has officially arrived.

Few flowers have such an odd structure as these -- they look like a cluster of twisted satin ribbons hung from the spreading branches. They’re really rather festive, like a designer bow on an elegantly wrapped gift package.

Despite their fragile looks, the flowers are engineered to withstand winter’s cold and fluctuating temperatures. When thermometer readings are mild, they spool open and perfume the air; when readings dip, they close up tight and wait for better conditions.

Witch hazels are a gilded clan, with flowers that range from pale to strong yellow through gold, copper and a glowing burnt orange. Having seen a number close at hand, I’d recommend the clear yellow of ‘Arnold’s Promise’ over the pallid yellow-green of vernalis, and the deep, mellow orange-red of ‘Diana’ over the somewhat strident copper-pink of ‘Jelena.’

All witch hazels are hardy in New Jersey, and once established, are quite tough and drought-resistant. They’re also tolerant of polluted urban air and, being neat of habit, rarely need pruning.

Witch hazels enjoy a site in sun or partial shade, and will do best in a moist soil liberally amended with peat moss or leaf mold. Spring, when they’re blooming, is the best time to choose a variety and container-grown plants can go right in the ground. Fall planting is also recommended. 

While good looks in the garden are can't be underrated, witch hazel is probably best known for its cosmetic and medicinal properties, distilled from dormant twigs. It was Native Americans of the East Coast who first introduced its medicinal uses to European colonists.

Poultices of witch hazel were to treat minor skin irritations like sunburn, insect bites, scratches and scrapes. It’s still used that way, but modern medicine has adapted it for treating eczema, cold sores and varicose veins, among other ailments. The theme is the reduction of inflammation.

One last traditional use of witch hazel intrigues me no end. It is said to "heal a broken heart and cool passions," which certainly would come in handy from time to time. A sprig of vibrant witch hazel flowers may not mend your heart, but is bound to lift it.


An earlier version of this article appeared in the Star-Ledger in March of 2000.